Electronic Edge For Lake Lanier Winter Ditch-Pattern Bass
Everyone has heard about the good winter ditch bite at Lake Lanier, but how do you locate those fish and catch them? James Harmon, known as “Lanier Jim,” or LJ for short, has spent years learning to read electronics and using them to catch Lanier bass, and his tips will help you.
In 2012, I set up a trip with LJ for an early summer Map of the Month article on Lanier. I was a bit surprised when I got into his boat and the only two rods he had were both rigged for drop-shot fishing. That has always been his mainstay on Lanier, but he will use other baits when needed.
LJ also started a side business of installing electronics for people, and that business has grown. He recently partnered with Advantage Boat Center and his sales/installation business jumped from about 80 boats a year to more than 200. He knows electronics from transducer to screen to lake bottom.
After installing your electronics or other equipment, you can also set up a trip with LJ to learn the details of how to efficiently use GPS, sonar, side imaging and down imaging. And he can fine-tune them on the water to get the best from each unit.
Watching him tune in a depthfinder is like watching a concert pianist as his fingers fly through the keys. But he explains each step he is taking, why he is doing it and how you can change it for your favorite lake, water conditions and way of fishing.
The ditch bite is fantastic on Lake Lanier during the winter. Baitfish move into the ditches at Lanier, something that happens every winter on Lanier and other lakes. The bite is starting now and will get better as the water gets colder. It seems to be happening fast this year with the low lake level and the cold weather in early November.
The ditch bite will last from the time the water drops below 60 degrees until March, unless the winter turns unusually warm. And in March the spotted bass will use ditches near spawning flats to migrate, so those ditches near spawning areas will be better later in the winter.
A ditch is defined as any submerged dip or valley between higher ground under water. An obvious ditch shows as a cove or creek, but a ditch may be hidden underwater, like a gully running across an underwater flat. The most important feature of any ditch is the presence of baitfish.
LJ says a good ditch does not have to be very long—some of his best only run about 100 feet in length. A ditch also does not have to be either narrow or wide to be good. But the second key to a good ditch is that it drops into water at least 50 feet deep. Standing timber in the ditch or at the end of it helps, as do brushpiles in the ditch.
Bass will be in many different ditches all winter and will move from one to the other. Spotted bass are famous for following bait, and they will, no matter how cold the water. Without baitfish present, you are unlikely to catch bass.
You do not have to have the most modern electronics to find the ditches, but it makes the process much quicker and easier. For years, LJ installed Humminbird electronics and still favors them over all others, but he no longer calls Lowrance the “L” word or other brands by funny names, since he installs them all, and any brand has its strengths.
Start with a GPS. Humminbird is known for its good maps and its LakeMaster Map chip and ability to set them to show different depths. On any GPS, set your map to highlight water from the bank to 55 feet deep. A good method is to set water from 0 to 10 feet deep in red and water from 35 to 55 feet deep in green, as shown in the picture to the right.
With those colors set, any ditch will jump out at you on the screen. Remember, you want to fish ditches that drop into at least 50 feet deep—not a problem on Lanier. Those are your starting points. Pick an area with several, and go ride them with your sonar. The best ditches have a defined channel, even if they are almost filled in with silt, and they tend to be on the lower lake downstream of Brown’s Bridge.
To find the bait and bass in a ditch, LJ sets his side scan to 100 feet. If it is tuned right you can cover all parts of most ditches at this width with one loop. Slowly idle from the mouth of a ditch down one side to the back in about 35 feet of water, basically following the shallow edge of the green area on your GPS. Go out the other side at the same depth. That should keep your boat in water deep enough to scan the sides of the ditch from 10 feet deep out to the middle. In a narrow ditch one pass will do it.
Watch for “clouds” of baitfish, either threadfin shad or blueback herring. Time of day and cloud cover will impact what you see. Early in the morning, bait will be toward the back of a ditch, and they will move out to the mouth as the day gets brighter. On cloudy days this movement will be slower.
Also, shad go deeper with bright sun, and while blueback herring tend to go toward the surface. With a good side scan you can usually tell if the bait balls you see are bluebacks or shad. The bass eat both, but your bait selection may be better if you fish smaller baits around shad and bigger baits around bluebacks.
Once you confirm baitfish are present, start carefully watching your down scan and sonar for bass. They may be hugging the bottom, where down scan will help you spot them, or they may be suspended, where sonar will pick them up and down scan can confirm them.
LJ sets his sonar to 455 MHz for the clear water on Lake Lanier and the depth he is searching. That setting produces a tight 16-degree cone, but you get a better, more detailed return. This setting is not good in stained water since you get more clutter. And if you are searching with it, a bigger cone covers more bottom.
With this 455 MHz setting, you will be looking at a circle on the bottom about one-third the depth. So if you are in 30 feet of water, your bottom reading is only about 10 feet. That is not much to cover and it is why you need side and down scan to locate fish and cover, and then zero in on it with sonar.
It takes some practice to learn to identify spotted bass from other fish. Groups of tightly packed fish holding close together over bottom cover are likely crappie. Hybrids and stripers will be more spread out and are usually bigger. Too, they will move almost constantly. Bass will usually hold more horizontally and spread out more.
Remember that bigger arches on sonar do not necessarily mean bigger fish. Fish directly under the boat that enter the sonar cone will be in it longer, so they make a bigger arch. Fish on either side of the cone will make smaller, less defined arches, but the fish may be the same size or even bigger than fish directly under the sonar cone. Down scan will help identify the size of the fish, since they show up as a dot, not as an arch like on sonar.
LJ warns if you see one or two fish that look like spots, there may be dozens more with them you are not seeing. He says many times he barely sees a bass on the bottom, but when he drops a bait down, dozens of fish will show themselves.
When in doubt, stop and check them out with sonar or, if you have it, forward-facing sonar. With the boat sitting still you can watch your sonar to see if fish are moving under the boat. Spots will move more than crappie or catfish, but so will hybrids and stripers. Watch them to see how they react, and drop a bait to them to see if they will hit it.
Forward-facing sonar is a whole different game. You can watch the movement of fish in real time, identifying their depth and movements, and watch them react to your bait. A good rule of thumb is to set your forward-facing sonar forward range to twice the depth setting, for example in 50 feet of water, set the depth down to about 50 or a little deeper and forward to about 100 feet.
To take advantage of the great wintertime ditch-pattern bite on Lanier, you do not have to have forward-facing sonar, or any other kind for that matter. For years, fishermen read paper maps or looked at the bank and found ditches to fish. They then found the cover and fish in them with a spoon or similar bait, through trial and error. You can still do this, and also let loons help you find the baitfish in a ditch. But electronics will save you time and help you catch more fish.
One thing to help you find the fish is to look for a quick drop—even a slight, 1-foot drop along the edge of a ditch will concentrate bass. But the drop can hide the fish from your electronics, too. If you see a drop, check it out closely.
For the wintertime ditch-pattern bite on Lanier, keep a crankbait, drop shot, Dimiki jig and a jigging spoon ready. At first light, quickly fish around the back of the ditch with a shad-colored crankbait that will run at least 15 feet deep. Keep your boat in 20 feet of water and fish quickly, making long casts past the 15-foot depth line, and work your bait back to the boat looking for aggressive fish. If you don’t catch anything on a quick pass, move on. It can pay to hit several ditches between first light and sunrise like this.
As the sun gets higher, search deeper and deeper. You can follow the fish and bait as they move deeper. And if you catch three or four bass and they stop biting, leave and come back later after they have started feeding again.
LJ’s favorite bait this time of year is a drop-shot worm. He and his son sell “Fruity Worms” at Lanierbaits.com in colors LJ has developed specifically for Lanier and other deep, clear lakes like it. He also sells a drop shot rigging kit called the Big E-liminator. It helps eliminate line twist and allows you to quickly adjust the position of your bait relative to your weight.
Start with your worm about 6 inches above your drop-shot weight and hold it still in front of fish you see right on the bottom. If they are holding a little higher off the bottom, move your worm higher from your weight. LJ does not shake his rod tip much, preferring to hold it still since the worm will have enough action from boat movement.
If the bass are suspended, you can lower your drop-shot bait or a small Damiki jig to just above the depth they are holding and get them to bite. Hold it right in front of the fish at the depth they are holding.
You can fish a spoon the same way. LJ likes a Slab Spoon they sell in either blue or white and will try both a 1/2- and 3/4-oz. size, depending on water depth, wind and what size the bass want that day.
Try different actions with your spoon. Drop it to the bottom, and then jerk it up a couple feet and let it fall on a semi-slack line. Be ready to set the hook as it falls—that is when you will usually get a bite. If that doesn’t work, try popping it even higher or try barely moving it on the bottom.
If the fish are holding in brush or timber, a spoon can be shaken loose and seldom gets stuck so badly you can’t get it back. Just try to not set the hook hard unless you are sure it is a bass, not a limb! A drop-shot worm can also be rigged Texas style rather than nose hooked for fishing wood cover.
During times of bright sun, the bass often move into the standing timber in or at the mouth of the ditch and may hold at any depth. Sometimes it is hard to spot them on your electronics, but when you do, drop your Fruity Worm to them and hold it right in front of them.
Fishing pressure is so bad that bass are learning what the click of a sonar means. If you find fish, especially less than 30 feet deep, and they won’t hit right under the boat, mark them and come back later. Stop as far from them as you can and make a long cast, letting your drop shot, Damiki jig or spoon sink on slack line to get to the fish without spooking them.
Forward-facing sonar will allow you to stay back from the fish but still know exactly where they are for accurate casts. And you can see how they react and then change colors or size of your baits as needed to get bites. It also helps to turn off any electronics you are not using, and keep the trolling motor on a very low setting and use it as little as possible.
The ditch bite is starting right now and will get better and better for the next three months. Learn to find and catch these Lanier bass yourself, or get LJ to show you how he does it by calling him at 770.374.1000 or visiting his website lanierjimfishing.com. Also visit his Facebook pages Lanier Baits, Southern Outdoors Club and James LJ Harmon.
For more info on the Lanier ditch pattern, read gon.com/fishing/lanier-bass-winter-ditches.
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